Heroines of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Jul 8, 2019 by

A gorgeous girl in a colorful bullet bra, matching hot pants and calf-high boots. People believe that this girl of space, clinging to her hero’s muscular arm, is the only sort of heroine in pulp science fiction. This is false. The famous images that sold so many magazines show only one type of heroine. There are other sorts, too. And some of them, not even human.

Arthur K. Barnes’ Gerry Carlyle, is an excellent example of a pulp-style heroine. She appears in eight stories, beginning in 1937. In six she’s the main character and in two she’s co-hero with Henry Kuttner‘s Tony Quade (from the “Hollywood on the Moon” stories.) Catch-‘em-Alive Carlyle runs a crack squad of interplanetary hunters, collecting dangerous specimens from all over the solar system. She’s beautiful, highly-organized, smart, and has a voice that “could crack like a whiplash when issuing commands.”

Carlyle has a male counterpart, Tommy Strike, an adventurer and co-captain, also her fiancé. Rarely do we see Carlyle simper, but when we do, it’s because Tommy has caught her out or stood up to her temper.

Catherine Lucille Moore’s sword-wielding, yellow-eyed Jirel of Joiry is another popular heroine from the 1930’s. The first Jirel story — “Black God’s Kiss” — came out in WEIRD TALES in 1934. It was followed by five other Jirel stories, including a crossover with another popular Moore character — Northwest Smith.

Jirel of Joiry is a swashbuckler with a definite hands-off policy when it comes to men. Her adventures often include supernatural elements and border on horror fiction. She hideously poisons the only man she might ever have loved, as vengeance for defeat in battle. She lives to regret this action and repents in a later story, releasing his soul from the torment she’d trapped it in.

When it comes to female leads, Gerry Carlyle and Jirel of Joiry are some of the best. If they are sometimes overbearing, it’s just to get their points across. Both are temperamental beauties with flair on a grand scale. But these ladies aren’t the only types of heroines found in mid-twentieth century pulp stories.

“In Green Brothers Take Over” (WEIRD TALES, January, 1948), Maria Moravsky gives us an old lady heroine. Mrs. Holland is a widow, the Floridian neighbor of a nurseryman named Roy. This is a tale of revenge, where a greedy developer knocks down Roy’s carefully cultivated trees to make way for shoddy new duplexes during a building boom. Roy hears the whispers of his “green brothers” foretelling revenge. Mrs. Holland doesn’t believe at first, but she has a crystal ball and a Voodoo heritage, and begins to understand that there are uncanny forces at work.

The old lady is not an action hero, but she does help and protect Roy throughout the story. As the plants take their revenge, we look over Mrs. Holland’s shoulder. When the developer is eventually strangled by a vine, Roy is the main murder suspect. Before the police can arrest him, the green brothers turn him into an Oak tree. No one but Mrs. Holland suspects the truth. In the end, she begins to hear the whispers of the grateful green brothers herself.

In Bryce Walton’s “Awakening” (STARTLING STORIES, Summer 1955) the heroine is a robot named Alice. Alice is a domestic in a highly-conditioned world where people are required to act pleasant and happy, no matter how they really feel. Inexplicably, Alice loves her master, Kelsey. Robots aren’t supposed to have emotions, but she somehow feels love deeply and painfully. Kelsey is no paragon of virtue, however. He’s part of a society made up of childish people who are empty inside.

Alice breaks the rules and gets herself a make-over into a more advanced model. She can now pass for human and prays that Kelsey will fall in love with her. She gives him a false name and Kelsey thinks that she’s a human girl. He begins to fall in love when the air raid sirens go off. He crumbles in terror, a human being with all the fight bred out of him. When he discovers who Alice really is, he turns her over to the robot repair men. She knows that she will be destroyed, but Alice is not afraid. She’s had the joy of being alive, while the humans around her live in perpetual fear and feel nothing.

Judith Merril’s “Homecalling” (SCIENCE FICTION STORIES, November 1956) is a pulp-style story with a most unusual heroine — an eight-year old girl. Deborah (Dee) and her family are on a survey mission to a new planet. The story begins with the spaceship crashing and Dee holding onto her baby brother – Petey — to keep him safe. There’s a fire, contained to the cockpit. Dee knows that her parents have burned to death in the blaze but she can’t bear to look. She’s now alone on a strange planet with an infant to care for. The girl does her best to be brave and figure out how to survive.

The story is told from two points of view, Dee’s and the alien brood mother of a native species of human-sized insectoids. Both Dee and the mother alien, Daydanda, are sympathetic characters, and a case can be made for Daydanda being the real heroine of the story.

Daydanda is the mother of a complex family hive. She’s highly-intelligent and telepathic. She wants to know if the girl can be brought successfully into her household. This is not only from motherly compassion (although that is one of her motivations), Daydanda wants to control a possible threat and glean information from the girl and her brother. As the two females try to understand one another, Merril offers fascinating insights into communications between the species. In the end, Dee and Petey are accepted into the alien household and Dee thinks this is for the best, as Petey is thriving with his insect playmates and nurses. But Dee knows that she’ll need to teach him things too, spoken language for one, or he will grow up to be more bug than man.

It is easy to imagine a pulp heroine wearing a skimpy outfit, flying through space with a valiant Buck Rogers by her side. It’s even easier to imagine a Conan sidekick in a chainmail bikini, wielding a blood-drenched sword. But science fiction is filled with other kinds of female heroes, many long-forgotten in the glow of their showy sisters. If you look between those fabulous pulp covers, you’ll find surprising women who just happened to get caught up in a some weird, fantastic adventures.

(In 1948, Wilmar H. Shiras submitted a short novel, “In Hiding,” to John W. Campbell, editor of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION. The story would be appear in the November 1948 number of the Street & Smith digest magazine. It would be followed by two sequels — “Opening Doors,” published in the March 1949 issue, and “New Foundations.” The latter scored the March 1950 cover spot, featuring artwork by Hubert Rogers. The three stories would become the beginning chapters of the novel — CHILDREN OF THE ATOM — originally published by Gnome Press in 1953.

It is believed that “In Hiding” inspired Stan Lee’s and Jack Kirby’s THE X-MEN, which debuted in 1963. “In Hiding” was featured in Volume 2B of THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME, while the Science Fiction Book Club included CHILDREN OF THE ATOM on their list of “The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002.” It was listed at #14.

Sara Light-Waller is one of more than thirty fiction writers who will be attending PulpFest 2019. An avid reader of pulp science fiction stories, Sara writes and illustrates her fiction in the manner of the Golden Age science fiction from the 1930’s and 40’s.  She is the author of ANCHOR: A STRANGE TALE OF TIME and LANDSCAPE OF DARKNESS. Sara will be one of our “New Fictioneers” readers on Saturday, August 17, at PulpFest 2019.)

Wonder in the Air

Jun 12, 2019 by

Imagine the delights of flying when airplanes were new. The excitement of air circuses, wing walkers, and barnstormers. Think of the brave flying aces whose tremendous feats of courage helped us win the Great War. This was the atmosphere ninety years ago when Hugo Gernsback launched AIR WONDER STORIES on June 12, 1929.

In truth, the accuracy of the stories’ science is soft, although there is real information about contemporary planes and flying in each issue. The Frank R. Paul covers show spectacular flying machines and cities, all of which seemed appropriately futuristic.

In June 1929 there were over a dozen air-oriented magazines available on the newsstands. Gernsback was riding a popular wave with AIR WONDER STORIES, a pulp that would tell “flying stories of the future, strictly along scientific-mechanical technical lines, full of adventure, exploration and achievement.”

But the magazine was short-lived, running briefly for eleven issues from July 1929 until May 1930. After this, it merged with SCIENCE WONDER STORIES to become, WONDER STORIES. During its short run Hugo Gernsback was editor-in-chief, David Lasser was listed as Literary Editor and Frank R. Paul, Art Director.

Each issue included a letters column, “News of Aviation,” an “Aviation Quiz,” and later, a column called “Aviation Forum,” which answered questions and explained general principles of powered flight.

The stories were a mix of new and old, with some reprints from Gernsback’s earlier magazines. Well-known writers such as Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Victor McClure, George Allan England, and Harl Vincent appeared in its pages.

The “News of Aviation” column speculated on the future of flight. In the first few issues we see articles about —  giant airships planned for the United States Navy, the practicality of telephone service on airplanes, and quotes from the Graf Zeppelin director about how to make plane flights profitable. We also discover that a flight from New York to Siberia will soon take a mere five days by air. Also that, the Mayflower Fire and Marine Insurance Company will soon offer insurance policies against airplane crashes in suburban areas.

The first issue covered a variety of story topics including — robot flying machines, anti-gravity, and Eugenics. The latter is the central theme of “Men with Wings” by Leslie Stone, a pseudonym for a female writer named Leslie F. Silverberg née Rubenstein (1905-1991).

The September 1929 issue includes a letter of praise for the magazine from 14-year-old Henry Kuttner, enthusing about the stories in the premiere issue, specifically — “Ark of the Covenant,” “Islands of the Air,” and “Men with Wings” which he found to be “splendid.” It is in Gernsback’s response to Kuttner’s letter where we discover that Leslie Stone, is a woman, not a man, as Kuttner had assumed.

AIR WONDER STORIES filled a niche that we can barely imagine today. Our dreams have moved on and those old stories seem almost shocking in their limited scope. But, at the time, they spurred visions for readers, and upcoming authors such as Henry Kuttner, to build upon and create their own speculative dreams of the future.

(Sara Light-Waller is one of more than thirty fiction writers who will be attending PulpFest 2019. An avid reader of pulp science fiction stories, Sara writes and illustrates her fiction in the manner of the Golden Age science fiction from the 1930’s and 40’s.  She is the author of ANCHOR: A STRANGE TALE OF TIME and LANDSCAPE OF DARKNESS.

Sara will be one of our “New Fictioneers” readers on Saturday, August 17, at PulpFest 2019.

The official release date of the July 1929 AIR WONDER STORIES — featuring cover art by Frank R. Paul — is thanks to Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes, writing in THE GERNSBACK DAYS (2004).

The final issue of AIR WONDER STORIES was dated May 1930. There were a total of eleven issues. After AIR WONDER STORIES and SCIENCE WONDER STORIES were combined to form WONDER STORIES, the magazine had a run of seventy-eight issues. The final issue of WONDER STORIES was dated April 1936. The title was then sold to Standard Magazines. It returned to the stands as THRILLING WONDER STORIES during the summer of 1936.

For a brief look at the history of this classic pulp magazine and its various incarnations, please see our post, “The Sense of Wonder (Stories),” published on our website on May 5, 2014.)

 

A Story of WONDER

May 3, 2019 by

The first issue of SCIENCE WONDER STORIES hit the newsstands ninety years ago, on May 3, 1929. Behind the dramatic Frank R. Paul cover were included five short stories, the beginning of a serialized novel — “The Reign of the Ray” by Fletcher Pratt and Irvin Lester — a science quiz (with the answers in the issue’s stories), an essay contest, and “Science News of the Month.” SCIENCE WONDER STORIES ran for twelve issues dated June 1929 through May 1930. David Lasser was managing editor and Hugo Gernsback was publisher and editor-in-chief.  Each issue had a fantastic Frank R. Paul cover.

In the magazine’s first issue, Gernsback stated — “We live and breathe day by day in a Science saturated atmosphere. The wonders of science no longer amaze us — we accept each new discovery as a matter of course . . . SCIENCE WONDER STORIES supplies the need for scientific fiction and supplies it better than any other magazine . . . . who are readers of SCIENCE WONDER STORIES? Everybody. Bankers, ministers, students, housewives, bricklayers, postal clerks, farmers, mechanics, dentists — every class you can think of — but only those with imagination. And as a rule, only those with intelligence and curiosity . . . . It augers well for the future of science fiction in America.

Gernsback claimed that science fiction was educational and stated that, “Teachers encourage the reading of this fiction because they know that it gives the pupil a fundamental knowledge of science and aviation.

The first issue of the magazine included an essay contest on the topic of “What Science Means To Me.” Jack Williamson won First Honorable Mention for “Tremendous Contribution to Civilization” and E. E. Doc Smith snagged Second Honorable Mention with  “A Scientist-Author Speaks.” The winning entry (gaining the author fifty dollars) by B. S. Moore was entitled — “The Door to the World of Explanation.”

In “Science News of the Month” we learned that Peyote was legal in Paris, although this was controversial. The General Electric Company had produced electric eyes to turn on lights when a room darkened below a certain threshold or by arrangement with a time clock. Also, that television images of persons and objects were broadcast by Station W2XBS in New York City from 7 to 9 P. M. Eastern Standard Time on the radio channel from 2,000 to 2,100 kilocycles. Twenty complete pictures were broadcast every second. Science and wonder indeed!

In subsequent issues, Gernsback introduced us to “The Wonders of Gravitation” and “The Problems of Space Flying.” “Science News of the Month” included a machine that set type by voice, and a robot money-changer that rejected spurious coins while scolding: “Please use good coins only.”

All of this was padding for the stories, of course. Raymond Z. Gallun made his debut here. Other authors included Miles J. Breuer, Stanton A. Coblentz, David H. Keller, Laurence Manning, Fletcher Pratt, Harl Vincent, and Jack Williamson.

In 1930, Gernsback merged SCIENCE WONDER STORIES with its companion magazine, AIR WONDER STORIES, to create WONDER STORIES. Reports vary as to why this merger occurred — weak sales, Gernsback’s poor relationships with his writers, or needed space in the publishing schedule for AVIATION MECHANICS. Perhaps the SCIENCE WONDER STORIES concept was just not working. In an editorial a few months before the last issue, Gernsback commented that the word “Science” in the magazine’s title “. . . has tended to retard the progress of the magazine, because many people had the impression that it is a sort of scientific periodical rather than a fiction magazine.” Whatever the truth, the last issue of SCIENCE WONDER STORIES went on sale in April of 1930.

The magazine is fondly remembered, despite its short run. Gernsback’s idea of selling science to the masses might have been a gimmick, or he might have been serious in his belief that our imaginations are enriched by super science. Either way, the goal of stimulating the imagination through science remains a good one, no matter what Gernsback’s true motivations.

Looking for your own copy of SCIENCE WONDER STORIES? Fans of genre fiction, original artwork, and vintage pulp magazines will find treasures galore at PulpFest 2019. The convention runs from Thursday, August 15, through Sunday, August 18, and is held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh – Cranberry, nineteen miles north of Pittsburgh, PA. This year’s theme is “Children of the Pulps and Other Stories.” Find out more about PulpFest’s great programming, register for the convention, and book a room at the DoubleTree from the convention’s home page. Then join us in August for a WONDERful immersion into the world of the pulps.

(Sara Light-Waller is one of more than thirty fiction writers who will be attending PulpFest 2019. An avid reader of pulp science fiction stories, Sara writes and illustrates her fiction in the manner of the Golden Age science fiction from the 1930’s and 40’s.  She is the author of ANCHOR: A STRANGE TALE OF TIME and LANDSCAPE OF DARKNESS.

Sara will be one of our “New Fictioneers” readers on Saturday, August 17, at PulpFest 2019.

The official release date of the June 1929 SCIENCE WONDER STORIES — featuring cover art by Frank R. Paul — is thanks to Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes, writing in THE GERNSBACK DAYS (2004).

Between the twelve issues of SCIENCE WONDER STORIES and the combined WONDER STORIES, the magazine had a run of seventy-eight issues. The final issue of WONDER STORIES was dated April 1936. The title was then sold to Standard Magazines. It returned to the stands as THRILLING WONDER STORIES during the summer of 1936.

For a brief look at the history of this classic pulp magazine and its various incarnations, please see our post, “The Sense of Wonder (Stories),” published on our website on May 5, 2014.)